Although many think the dramatic parts of a trial – the opening and closing arguments — are the most crucial moments, the actual evidence presented at trial is what truly determines the verdict. After all, a jury’s verdict must be based on the evidence. But what is “evidence”? A lawyer’s argument or interpretation of facts is not evidence in a personal injury case. Evidence can be testimony given by witnesses, as well as tangible items and documents that are admitted as exhibits. Each state has its own rules of evidence that a judge must apply in determining whether evidence is admissible or not admissible. In many situations, evidence that would seem quite relevant to the lawsuit is frequently excluded at trial. It may be a surprise to find out that these five things are usually inadmissible in a personal injury case in Alabama.
Alabama Uniform Traffic Crash Reports – Alabama Courts have said that automobile accident reports are inadmissible at trial. However, judges have disagreed on the reason why. One Alabama statute states, “No such report shall be used as evidence in any trial, civil or criminal, arising out of an accident…” (Ala. Code § 32-10-11). In Mainor v. Hayneville Telephone Co., 715 So. 2d 800 (Ala. Civ. App. 1997), the Alabama Civil Court of Appeals decided that the statute required that automobile accident reports be excluded at trial. However, other judges have prevented admission of automobile accident reports on the basis of the “hearsay rule” (Alabama Rule of Evidence 802). In limited situations, an automobile accident report can be used at trial to refresh a police officer’s memory while he is testifying or to impeach a witness who has made a prior inconsistent statement. Yet in the vast majority of cases, the jury will not be allowed to view the accident report or learn all the information contained in the report.
The Defendant’s Available Liability Insurance – In personal injury cases, the main question is whether someone is liable to another for money damages. For a party to be found liable, they must be proved to have been negligent. In Alabama, automobile insurance is mandatory. Therefore, in a lawsuit seeking damages for personal injury from a car wreck, the insurance company will provide legal representation and will pay any judgment – up to the limit of the policy – entered against the person, if he or she is found to be negligent. However, in almost all situations, the jury cannot be told that a defendant has liability insurance. Alabama Rule of Evidence 411 states, “Evidence that a person was or was not insured against liability is not admissible upon the issue whether the person acted negligently or otherwise wrongfully.” The justification for this rule is straightforward. A jury may be tempted to award damages or increase its award of damages because the insurance company is paying the judgment. Our legal system wants the jury to determine the outcome of a personal injury case on the facts, not whether the insurance company will pay the judgment.
Subsequent Remedial Measures – When a person or company’s wrongful acts or omissions cause personal injury, then hopefully that person or company will take action to eliminate the wrongful acts or omissions in the future to prevent injuring more people. The fact that action is taken to prevent further personal injuries from occurring can be compelling evidence of fault for the original injury. However, as a matter of public policy, we want to encourage people to take “remedial measures” to fix their past behavior. This encouragement is found in Alabama Rule of Evidence 407, which states, “When after an event, measures are taken which, if taken previously, would have made the event less likely to occur, evidence of the subsequent measures is not admissible to prove negligence or culpable conduct in connection with the event.” This rule is based on the idea that we want people to exercise care to protect others. If this type of evidence was admissible in personal injury cases, it is possible that persons or companies would not alter their wrongful behavior because it could expose them to liability.
Offers to Settle – At some point in most personal injury cases, there are conversations about settlement between the parties. In some instances, settlement negotiations break down, and the case proceeds to trial. Counsel for the injured party would love to be able to tell a jury that, “the defendant offered to settle my case for $50,000 just a month ago.” Such evidence would tend to prove the defendant is at fault. Because this is the logical conclusion from any offer to settle, the rules prohibit such evidence from being presented to a jury in a personal injury case. (Alabama Rule of Evidence 408). Admission of settlement discussions would impact the outcome of the case and, as a result, the parties would not want to make or solicit offers to settle. To encourage open discussions of settlement, the rules assure that any statements they make during settlement negotiations will not be heard by a jury in the event the case goes to trial.
Payment of Medical Expenses – It may happen that a person who injures another will offer to pay the injured person’s medical expenses. Such an offer could be seen as an admission of fault. If the injured person wishes to bring a lawsuit, evidence that the defendant offered to pay the medical expenses would seem to be great proof that the defendant was at fault. However, Alabama Rule of Evidence 409 prohibits such evidence. Again, it is clear to see the justification for the prohibition. By prohibiting such evidence, we encourage people to act charitably. People may be fearful that, if they offer to pay another’s medical bills after a car collision, then it may come back to haunt them in a civil lawsuit. The rules of evidence lift this fear by preventing a jury from hearing such evidence.
As you can see, rules regarding evidence in Alabama can be quite complex. At Siniard, Timberlake & League, we have experienced attorneys to assist in this process.